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Eastern Promises (2007) R 100 min

September 23rd, 2007 by Maxim · 5 Comments · 10,776 Views

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Viggo Mortensen in Focus Features' Eastern PromisesFinally someone had made an honest movie about modern mafia and human trafficking, Ukrainian mafia in London in this case. David Cronenberg, famous for directing “The History Of Violence”, directed this film and starred his favorite actor Viggo Mortensen once again in the main role. Technically, Viggo’s character is a supporting role, but his performance is so strong and vivid he is perceived as a main character.

The plot: Anna (Naomi Watts) is a nurse at the hospital in London, where a bleeding pregnant teenage girl is delivered. Her baby is saved, but the girl does not survive. Anna discovers her diary in her bag. Anna tries to consult with her Russian immigrant uncle Stepan to get the diary translated to English so she can find the dead girl’s family and send her daughter to them. The diary leads her to a Russian “Trans-Siberian” restaurant, which is a cover for a nest of Ukrainian mafia, but before she realized it, Anna put herself, the little newborn baby and her own family in grave danger: the diary implicates the owner of the restaurant Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a kingpin, in trafficking sex slaves, rape and drug dealing and his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) of rape and murder, and now these ruthless bad guys are after the diary. Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) is Kirill’s loyal driver/undertaker. But somehow the viewer gets drawn to him and we believe that there’s some good in him, or maybe he is the Devil himself.

The violence: Film is rated R for strong violence, nudity and sex scenes. My friends were in distress because of graphic sex and very violent shots. But unlike scenes of torture in movies like “Passion of Christ” designed to shock the viewer, or mutilated bodies you see in movies about genocide, in this movie violence is pretty much ”by the way” and is not placed in the movie just for the shock value. A lot of throat cutting there, but unlike murders in “Godfather” these felt a lot more real and gruesome. Besides, the violence does not dominate the movie – it’s a nice addition, just like in “History of Violence”, but both movies are really psychological thrillers. The characters are deep and complex. Nobody is shallow (except commodity mobsters/assassins nobody cares about anyway). Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts in Focus Features' Eastern PromisesAll main characters have long histories and complex backgrounds. I heard people call Kirill “a monster out of control”, but there’s something good to him too. His father says, “London did it to him”. He clearly suffers from his own sins. His violent outbreaks seem to only show that he himself is a broken person who wants to be incomprehensibly violent to prove that he can be. When his father slaps him around, or when he gets drunk – it only goes to show that he is suffering. The good in him is struggling with the environment he is brought up in and loyalty to his father. He wants to be normal, but he knows that’s now the way to please his father and lets his dark side to the extreme to prove to himself that he can be the man his father wants him to be: what in Godfather was called “being a strong and powerful man who can lead the family business”. But we see him in the final scene crying over a baby or how he treats his children. Children are the future, but they are also reflection of their parents, and he seemed to be terrified that his children will be anything like him. Actors and director have done a fantastic job conveying it to the viewer. I also thought that physical violence did not bother me that much. What was really shocking was how cruel are people’s intentions. They’ve no problem with killing, or trafficking teenage girls, putting them on drugs, beating them and raping them repeatedly until they’ve got no self-respect or anything humane in them left – we don’t see any of that in the movie; we just hear the voice of the author of the diary. Adding to the effect is the atmosphere of pre-Christmas London with its miserable weather, swamp-like humidity and darkness.

The naked scene in the steam room when Chechen killers are entering to kill Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) is pretty controversial. Ladies who were there with me in the theater said they saw too much of him. But what seems like a gross action scene ala Borat is actually a very powerful metaphor. Here’s a naked man facing death. Nothing protects his fragile body from knives of the assassins. “We come to this world naked and we live it naked”.

I always get annoyed when I hear horrible and incomprehensible Russian language in Hollywood movies, especially since there’s a whole army of Russian, Ukrainian and other ex-Soviet actors living in the damn place. But in case of Eastern Promises I must say I admire Viggo Mortensen and others (except for Vincent Cassel was was typically bad) for getting the the accent almost perfectly. Viggo was talking in complete long phrases, and, as he said in the interview for NPR, language does affect your body language. He was really authentic. He actually spent some time in Russia without a translator trying to get the accent right. I cannot say the same about Jerzy Skolimowski who played Uncle Stepan, but I could hear Polish accent in his Russian. Viggo did a lot of research on Russian criminal world. For example he discovered a book on tattoos, which in Russian prisons tell the criminal’s story, they are his business card, a resume. When he showed the book to his friend David Cronenberg, they decided to use this book as one of the main materials for the movie. Excellent idea. It made the movie look even more authentic. I did not expect such authenticity from Hollywood. Breaking old stereotypes and clichés was long overdue.

I did not quite understand the title. Maybe it means that promises are made to women when they are lured into the West and then brutalized and turned into prostitutes. Maybe it means that if a Russian mobster promised to kill you, you can pretty much sit in your armchair and wait for them to come and kill you.

Soundtrack was a little too sentimental.

A movie association came to mind: “Dirty Pretty Things” about underground human organ trade.

I thought it was too stereotypical that Chechen killers all wore leather jackets – they look the same in all movies. Ironicly that’s how I thought they look… Even more ironic was the fact that I myself was the only person in the theater wearing a leather jacket.

There was an old man in the theatre, who probably immigrated from USSR long time ago and probably had a drink before the show, who kept commenting quite loudly and sang sons along. It bothered me at times, but sometimes it only added to the experience when he began to sing along “Ochi Cherniye”, an old Russian romance song (it must be at least a century old) during the scene of Christmas dinner in the restaurant.

One more important note. I’ve seen in this movie, as well as in History Channel special, the same misconception or mistake over and over: Vory v zakone is not a criminal group or a gang. It’s not Yakuza of Russia. Vor v zakone literally means “Thief in Law”. It’s basically a rank in the entire criminal world of Russia, kind of like “General Major” of the criminals in recognition of their leadership skills, charisma and abidance by the thieves’ code. It’s a thief who follows certain guidelines, a codex of criminals. “Theives in law” formed as a society of mutual support with honor-based system in Stalin concentration camps. Most “thieves in law” don’t even work and were supposed to refuse to work should they get into incarceration. They also had their own courts to judge other thieves based on their traditions. One famous Vor V Zakone is Vladimir Podatev who was appointed a member of the commission for human rights under the late President Yeltsin, despite three previous felony convictions for murder, assault, and rape. The part about tattooing in both films is entirely true though.

** Update **

Viggo Mortensen won Best Performance By An Actor In A British Film award at British Independent Film Award for this role.
The film won People’s Best Choice award at Toronto International Film Festival.
This film has received a Golden Globe nominations for Best Motion Picture, Best Original Score and Best Performance By An Actor.
It comes out on HD-DVD on December 23, 2007.

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Tags: Crime/Gangster · Drama · Movies · Thrillers/Suspense

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5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Maxim // Dec 18, 2007 at 6:34 pm


    This comment was originally posted at 15:22 on 2nd October 2007.nnI hammer and sickle (pronounced “humor and tickle”) people.

  • 2 Eugene // Sep 24, 2007 at 9:08 am

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    Great review, really makes me want to go see it soon. One note – Chechens in particular and other North Caucasus’ ethnic groups in general do like wearing leather jackets. How do I know – one of my best friends back home is of a Karachay ethnicity.

  • 3 Tom // Oct 2, 2007 at 3:19 pm

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    The most disturbing part of this movie was that Maxim wears a leather jacket like the Chechen assasins. However, I believe Maxim is more effecient at killing.

  • 4 Maxim // Oct 2, 2007 at 3:22 pm

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    I hammer and sickle (pronounced “humor and tickle”) people.

  • 5 Eugene // Mar 20, 2008 at 3:34 pm

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    Saw this movie on a plane a couple of days ago. Great movie, your review is right on Maxim.

  • 6 Review: Running Scared (2006) R 122min | Maxim's Movie Reviews and Opinions Blog // Jun 26, 2008 at 10:20 pm


    [...] Similar movies: “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels“, “Reservoir Dogs“, “Training Day“, “Eastern Promises“. [...]

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